West of Woolwich: The Wall is still standing part one

Posted Wednesday, November 7, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: The Wall is still standing part one

by Fred Kahrl

                Reflections on the Cold War footprints …

                   just down the street and around the corner (Part One)

Tonight the votes are being counted to determine who will lead our nation for the next four years. The two contenders have significantly differing ideas about our future role in the world beyond our borders. This column first appeared in February, 2012, and is reprinted here in anticipation of continuing “Part Two” next week in the wake of the election. FJK

My niece married an East German.

His name is Jan-Christoph and he and Marguerite now live in Italy with their new twins.

When they met and married he was a “new” German because the Berlin Wall had already fallen and Germany’s two halves were re-united. On the 20th Anniversary of the Wall coming down, I was astonished and delighted to see Jan being interviewed on CNN about his recollections of the “fall” … because, I learned, he was “there” the night the Wall opened for free travel back and forth, and he immediately bicycled into West Berlin to celebrate with friends who he had not seen in many years.

I have so far neglected to ask if he had picked up a piece of the Wall as it was torn down in the following days. I hope he did, so he has something to hold in his hand when he tells the twins … in years to come … about what it was like trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

So, now the Wall is down, and fading into the fog of history for the new generations. I suspect if I was to ask a high school class of World History students what the Berlin Wall was part of … physically speaking … that there might well be a curious pause. After all, the connection between the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall may not be as clear to today’s young adults as it is to those of us who lived through it, and who may have even watched TV footage of East Germans being machine-gunned as they tried to scale the concrete and barbed wire.

The Wall is gone … the image endures … the image fades.

But there is another Cold War wall that endures and is … we hope … as durable as ever.


This map shows the modern iteration of what was known for most of the Cold War as the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line, a string of remote radar stations watching for Soviet Bombers.

Advances in radar technology have made it possible to close down and clean up some of the DEW Line sites, and others have been upgraded as part of the North Warning System that replaces the rest of the DEW Line. The remaining sites are jointly maintained by the Canadian Dept. of National Defense and the United States Air Force, more particularly NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command),which apparently is still hiding under Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs. The Arctic stations themselves are manned by … believe it or not … civilian contractors.

I mention this because it costs a lot to operate these sites, especially because they are so isolated. It is budget time in the USA, and many military projects are on the block as possible sacrifices to meet the budget deficits. One or more of these budget cuts could mean a reduction in Navy shipbuilding that would affect our local shipyard and, by direct extension, our local economy.

But costly military operations like the North Warning System (NWS) are not under the magnifying glass in this debate.


Because the NWS does not have an excitable voting constituency.

But, talk about cutting military programs in the “Lower 48” … programs that draw military spending and the jobs thus created … and the phones in Congressional offices begin to blare.

Suddenly every voter is an expert on national defense and military spending.

Who is asking if “out-of-sight” military programs are becoming obsolete, redundant, or just plain wasteful? Are overseas bases really more important than maintaining an up-to-date, technically competitive arsenal ? (Think Zumwalt-Class ships at BIW)

Why are we maintaining a radar “wall” in Canada and northern Alaska that is designed to track bombers, not missiles, when satellites could do a better job? And what about those super long range “Over the Horizon” radars that we spent ka-zillions of dollars to install … even here in Maine … and then shut them down ?

Here is another picture to consider:

If you have driven what is now called “The Bath Road” between Bath and Brunswick (or “Old Rte. 1”), you have driven past an artifact of this Cold War sentinel … on Witch Spring Hill in West Bath. The rotating antenna on top is gone, as are the two “target height-finding radars” (one is hiding by the big tower).

This was part of the SAGE System, another element of NORAD’s bomber defense system in the U.S. Once again, advances in radar technology allowed this antenna to replace three or four of the  “Texas Towers” installed east of New England on the George’s Banks … on the edge of the Continental Shelf.

None too soon!

The towers were not properly designed to withstand North Atlantic storms, and one of them toppled over, with operators still aboard.

But the tower on Witch Spring Hill is an enduring reminder of the Cold War era and how it touched all of us living near it in very unique and subtle ways. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect upon what lessons we learned from that era, and consider how that knowledge can be applied to national priorities that are being debated today.

After all … Putin recently re-activated the Russian Bomber Command.

Where does that fit in the budget debate?


(More SAGE reflections next week)

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